Dear Dell:

Your customer service is an embarrassment and I hope you do something about it. You've just lost one very big customer.

Those were to have been the final words of tech blogger Jon Rettinger -- aka TechnoBuffalo -- in a very public YouTube breakup with Dell (IW 500/24) over a botched return order back in 2009.

However, that was only the beginning of their relationship. 

See Also: Manufacturing Innovation & Product Development Strategy

Maybe it was the size of Rettinger's audience or his followers' obsession with gadgetry and high-tech gear, or maybe it was just the power of the personalized "Dear Dell" appeal. Whatever it was, Dell noticed. And responded. 

"Dell could have ignored TechnoBuffalo," recalls Paul M. Rand, president and CEO of word-of-mouth marketing firm Zócalo Group. "Instead, Dell reached out to him, allowed him to join its consumer advisory board and even followed up his complaint video with an update to let viewers know how Dell had improved its service."

Paul M Rand, CEO of Zocalo GroupWithin months of the original post, Rettinger was talking to senior executives at Dell, bringing his complaints and the complaints of his fans straight to the top. He detailed the whole experience to his vast, rapt audience of tech consumers, who suddenly found themselves feeling very good about Dell. 

As Rand describes in his book, "Highly Recommended," this was one of the earliest examples of a company recognizing the power of social media and using it to really listen and respond in a focused, strategic manner. Doing so closed the long-open loop between manufacturer and consumer in that blind disconnect of the post-purchase relationship. 

And that changed everything.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

"Social media is causing a fundamental shift in business, a true transformation," explains Rand. 

"Customers and consumers have started posting and sharing their experiences with every business they encounter," he says. "So now all the good, the bad and the ugly of how you do your business is being displayed in a way that was never possible before."

Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and review sites like Yelp, he explains, have taken word-of-mouth referrals to a whole new level. It is, as he says, "word-of-mouth on steroids."

Since Dell's first social media win four years ago, the volume and the presence of social media has increased exponentially. And with every new media and every new outlet has come the opportunity for consumers to either praise the brands that have earned their trust or to air grievances about those that have let them down.

With that development, the truly innovative companies have become those that have adapted to the new currents, who have learned to take in the message and own their brand in the new post-sales conversation. 

"Companies need to realize that they are being given a gift here," Rand explains. "Social media has given them a 24/7/365 focus group, and if they can just start listening to it, then they might be able to make the changes they need to shape those conversations and that feedback to be the way they want it to be."